The best available intelligence suggests that The Americans shouldn’t be this good. The FX espionage drama, which premiered its second season last week, is one of the best on television in spite of the potential silliness of its subject matter—a pair of Soviet sleeper agents in the early ’80s, living across the street from an FBI agent. The brilliance of The Americans, however, is its ability to balance high-stakes spy drama with more grounded (and more important) domestic stories about those spies (the Jennings family) and their pursuer (FBI agent Stan Beeman). The first season found the Jennings and Stan in the middle of a plot to intercept American missile defense plans, but its real emotional core was the realization that the Jennings’ marriage might not be so fake anymore and the toll that took on their work.
But after the first season ended with Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) touchingly together and committed to their now-real union, the show was backed into a corner. Prodding at the foundation of the Jennings’ marriage would have substantially diminishing returns to ground the spy games—after another separation or a contentious affair and subsequent reconciliation, it would’ve become difficult for anyone to take threats to their marriage seriously. Trying to draw too much emotional water from the same well has plagued almost every drama that’s made it past a first season (see: Dexter, Weeds). Thankfully, for its second season at least, The Americans has found a way to avoid this pitfall: by focusing on the Jennings’ relationship with their children.
At the end of last season, daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) begins to suspect something is wrong with her parents, and shows all signs of following through on her suspicion. Like everything else on The Americans, the manifestations of Paige’s rebellion aren’t quite as expected—she bemoans not spending time with her family, for one. And, without spoiling her new refuge from home, it’s not exactly debauched. Taylor isn’t at the same level as Russell and Rhys, but she’s strong enough to convey the slow crumbling of Paige’s innocence and shines in showdowns with parents worried they’re losing their children to capitalism, of all things.
The shift is also part of a broader move to ensure that the stakes of the show remain high without escalating. Rather than trying to keep the main plot at nation-threatening levels of importance, the season’s driving force is someone targeting the members of Directorate S (the KGB’s sleeper agents in the U.S.), maintaining life-or-death stakes, but only for the Jennings. In fact, combined with the show’s focus on Paige and Henry, the constant threat of assassination makes this season even tenser for the Jennings. By tonight’s second episode, the series’ direction makes it clear that suburbia itself has become threatening to the Jennings—any cyclist or delivery van could be the thing coming to put a bullet in them and their children.
Several other reviews have noted the show’s new emotional focus, but the move is so smart it deserves special treatment. The Americans is still about a family, but by consciously choosing which parts of the family it pays attention to, it gives itself room to keep viewers invested in whether or not those relationships will go sour as real, open questions. It would be truly incredible if The Americans managed to play with the Jennings and Beemans for years, taking any and all of them to the breaking point and back with only base-level emotional stability. It’s not so far-fetched—after all, spies thrive in chaos.
Written by Eric Thurm (@EricThurm)